For one part of the novel, Augustin Buzura’s Report on the State of Loneliness is exactly what the title describes: an old man sits in a remote mountain hut, pondering about death and a long life, which is reaching its end. Throughout his lamentations, we sense the despair of an aged intellectual coming to terms with the fact that the Romania he grew up in no longer has a place for him. We don’t even know his name until half way through his story, and it’s not important that we don’t – he could be any old man musing about a long lifetime in a country with a turbulent past.
In the other parts of the novel, picked together as though in a semi-unconscious train of thought, Report on the State of Loneliness is quite opposite to what its title suggests: a mosaic of stories across the twentieth century, which tell us how the narrator and the people around him connected, where they came from, and what their goals were in varying stages of life. There’s the father-in-law, Dario, the psychiatrist son, Dan, and his troubled girlfriend Claudia, the wife, Daria, and some more remote characters into whose lives we fleetingly delve in and out.
Buzura doesn’t give us time to adjust. The novel moves from one story to the next without warning, intersected by the narrator’s thoughts, his attempts to write and a myriad of quotes by philosophers, writers and poets. We’re rushing through a century of Romanian history across wars and changing regimes, one eye on ordinary citizens, one on those ‘great events’ of history that kept changing the country’s fate. These ever-changing settings make for a diverting read, though they occasionally cut off at precisely the point where you’d want to hear more. Rather than complying with the reader’s wish to delve deeper, Buzura drags you back, up the mountains, and into the hut to listen to the narrator’s musings about death and the loneliness that’s – life. It’s his story after all.
Considering that most of the stories in the book are retold from one man’s memories, the stories are incredibly diverse as the narrator uses his psychiatrist’s eye to analyse his counterparts. His loneliness and memories are only intercepted by young Mara, lonely and suicidal – and the beautiful daughter of a woman he once was in love with. An odd couple, the two find strange solace in each other’s company – like two people drowning, holding on to each other… Thisisn’t a love story, though. It’s not a history novel either, though it covers a lot of ground in modern Romanian history. It’s a kind of fictional autobiography, which ends up being surprisingly self-centred, despite the narrator’s inclusion of all those other lives lived around him.
From the protagonist’s confident intellectualism to Buzura’s neat choice of citations, Report on the State of Loneliness stands in line with the work of other great Central European novelists who took on the task of analysing their country’s history from bottom to top – Milan Kundera comes to mind here. For all its strengths in tying together different stories in such a coherent way, however, Report on the State of Loneliness also covers some of the more old-fashioned traditions of its genre: we encounter a man’s world, in which women occupy a limited range of positions that can all to easily be summed up: ‘mother, wife, lover, whore’. No matter how interesting their characters may be – take Daria, the narrator’s late wife, or his companion Mara – it feels like we never really get to know them. They’re projected visions, in which much attention’s paid to sex and sexuality, but comparably little to the fact that they, too, are intelligent, well-educated, and have to navigate their lives in a turbulent, at times even absurd, state.
Report on the State of Loneliness is Buzura’s first book published in English. Ramona Mitrică, Mike Phillips and Mihai Rîșnoveanu have mastered a careful translation, which takes care to introduce the English reader to Romanian proverbs, traditions and slang in footnotes, while making the text very readable with due attention to the narrator’s many different voices. As the author’s final novel, he could perhaps relate to the situation of his protagonist, explaining why Report on the State of Loneliness provides such an intense reading experience about life and death. Yet it’s also surprisingly teasing and leaves us wanting to hear more about the individual fates we encounter. This lingering moment’s perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement. It shows us just how much is out there to explore and that, at any rate, Romania’s rich history can never be told by one story alone.